As schools reopen at the beginning of a new decade we all have a massive part to play in trying to heal the deep divisions that have torn our society apart in recent years. This is perhaps one of the greatest leadership challenges we have faced in a long time.

Teachers and school leaders are driven by an intense sense of vocation. What gets them up in the morning is a passionate desire to give their students the very best life chances, to believe in themselves, to grasp the myriad opportunities that exist for them and to overcome the challenges they face as far as that is possible. They want to instil a love of learning and their subjects.

We must never forget that, for many young people, school is the most stable place in their often chaotic lives. For those young people school is often the one haven where values are consistent and boundaries are clear. It is the place where they can learn to socialise ,where they can meet role models who will influence them for life and where their self esteem can be grown.

Much of course is way beyond our control but there is much that schools can do. Thankfully most schools still have enough autonomy to be able to set their own distinctive ethos and make a real difference for their young people.

If there is anything to learn from recent experiences we need to get away once and for all from the idea that all schools and all parts of the country are the same and have some honest and frank discussion about some uncomfortable issues.

The biggest of these is the nature of disadvantage. Though all young people on free school meals come from financially disadvantaged homes they are not educationally disadvantaged in the same way. In all the schools I have worked or spent time in the greatest problem is almost always a cohort of white British young people. Typically their parents have had a bad experience of education or do not see it as a worthwhile aspiration. Their relationship with schools is often a difficult one and there is little ‘buy-in’ for the essentially middle class values that underpin education policy and drive our London-centric policy.  We cannot ignore this or pretend that the solutions will be found in London where, whilst there has been much excellent practice, the context is completely different from many areas of the country.

Many schools are doing a vast amount to address this but the challenges go way beyond the school gates.

What politicians need to do about this is beyond the scope of this blog but here are some suggestions for our profession:

  • Ignore the noise. Social media can be powerful and informative but only when used wisely. During 2019 much of the content has been divisive and damaging often dominated by a small number of people who surround themselves only with those who agree with their views. We have a diverse society and diverse schools – though all schools have some shared characteristics let’s not pretend that a selective school in suburban Kent or an oversubscribed school with a favoured intake operates in the same circumstances as a multi ethnic school in London or a largely white British one in the East Midlands. Above all there is no place for kind of abusive and aggressive language that none of us would tolerate in our students but which is sadly too evident on Twitter.
  • To quote Simon Sinek[1] every school needs to start with the ‘Why’. If we are to win with our students and our staff we need to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve in our own context. I see some great examples of schools that make this absolutely explicit and are driven by that collective sense of mission. Often it has to be said, those achievements are in spite of the accountability system which does little to recognise the importance of this.  Invariably the leaders of those schools confidently do what they know is right even when this requires some brave decisions.
  • No school will be successful unless we win over our students and have a crystal clear, shared and collectively owned vision of the education we set out to provide
    • The examination dominated curriculum is a massive challenge for many young people. Although the discussions many are having about their curriculum ‘intent’ have often been useful this is about far more than reacting to the latest policies or Ofsted framework and about far more than a list of subjects.
    • Of course knowledge is at the heart of this. When I read some commentaries I sometimes wonder whether I taught in a parallel universe for 31 years.  A curriculum that meets the needs of our students must be brought to life with opportunities to experience beyond the school gates, to understand the world or work, what it means to be an adult, what a happy fulfilled life looks like. It must inspire and fascinate and teachers must have the opportunity to use their professional judgement. to put aside their lesson plan to follow up a question from a students without fear of an overbearing accountability or management system.     The polarised discourse of knowledge versus skills is enormously unhelpful as is an assessment system that rewards an understanding of AO3 more than a love of a text.
    • Excellent behaviour comes from achieving the ‘buy in’ I have described. How that is achieved must come from the values and vision I have written about. There is no one right way to achieve this and that ethos must come from the top. Interminable dogmatic discussions asserting the relative efficacy of punitive versus nurturing approaches do nothing to help us find answers.

In an excellent New Year leader article in TES  Ed Dorrell wrote:   ‘Let 2020 be when teachers steer their own course……Instead of looking back at the challenges of the past decade, look forward to what the profession can do for itself’.  It may take longer to heal all of the divisions in British society but there is a vast amount we can achieve. Let us all seize that agenda!

Brian Lightman  January 2020

[1] Simon Sinek, Start with Why. Penguin 2019


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